An open door to the Arab world


Country briefing






Special topics


Arts and culture




Egypt: The fall of President Mubarak


Background note

On February 11, 2011, Hosni Mubarak resigned after 29 years and 120 days as president of Egypt. His overthrow – the result of a huge popular uprising – came less than a month after the fall of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali under similar circumstances in Tunisia

I have compiled all my blog posts relating to the Egyptian uprising below, together with a some articles I wrote for the Guardian, in chronological order.

Brian Whitaker

Police Day protests in Egypt

Blog post, January 25, 2011

Today is national Police Day in Egypt. It marks the occasion, 59 years ago, when police in Ismailia refused to surrender to British forces and 41 of them died in a three-hour battle. Their act of heroism is officially commemorated every year on January 25.

But since 1952 perceptions of the Egyptian police have changed – from liberators to oppressors, as a headline in al-Masry al-Youm puts it – and this year's Police Day is turning into a day of protest or, as some are calling it, a day of "revolution against torture, poverty, corruption and unemployment". Writing in the Guardian, Jack Shenker describes the preparations.

For Egypt, this will be the first major test of the "Tunisia effect". The protests are being organised by the Kifaya ("Enough") movement and the 6 April Youth Movement. More than 80,000 people have declared their support through Facebook, and support is also expected from industrial workers.

Some of the opposition parties have said they won't be taking part, as has Mohamed Elbaradei, the reform campaigner. Even the Muslim Brotherhood has declined to give its formal backing. In that sense, it looks like becoming at least partly a contest between the old, institutional, opposition politics and the more informal "new politics" organised online.

"Regardless of how many people turn up, these protests will be highly significant," Nabil Abdel Fattah, of Al-Ahram Research Centre, told the Guardian. "Those confronting the regime on Tuesday will be the sons and daughters of virtual activism – a new generation that has finally found something around which they can unite and rally.They are the product of a government that has never offered them any ideological vision to believe in, and now they have themselves become a symbol of contemporary Egypt."

The government has already been organising counter-demonstrations in support of the police and the detested interior minister, Habib el-Adli has threatened to "arrest any persons expressing their views illegally".

"Youth street action has no impact and security is capable of deterring any acts outside the law," he said in remarks quoted by Reuters.

Three people were reportedly arrested yesterday for distributing flyers advertising the protests.

Egypt update, January 25

Kifaya – "Enough!" One man and the riot police in Cairo today

Blog post, January 25, 2011 (evening)

Well, who would have believed it? Today's protests in Egypt far exceeded my own expectations and, no doubt, the expectations of the organisers and the Egyptian authorities. The Mubarak regime, even if it's not headed for oblivion just yet, must surely be shaken to the core.

For blow-by-blow accounts of the events as they unfolded, see AhramOnline, Enduring America and the Guardian.

I wrote this morning that today would be the first real test of the "Tunisia effect" – and we can now safely assume that it does exist. Without Tunisia, the protests in Egypt would have had nothing like the support they got. Today, someone coined the word "Tunisami" (Tunis + tsunami) and there were chants of "Ya Mubarak, Ya Mubarak, al-Saudia fi intizaarak" – Mubarak, Mubarak, Saudi Arabia (the retirement home for ex-dictators) is waiting for you.

I also suggested this morning that today would be a test of the "new" Arab politics (largely informal and organised online) against the old, institutional, opposition politics. Case proven. The new politics has shown itself to be viable.

Maybe I should add, too, that it was a test of the new media versus the old media. Again, case proven. The old media – even al-Jazeera – looked slow on their feet and too preoccupied with the less important game of musical chairs in Lebanon.

As for the new media, this morning, Wael Abbas, the most famous Egyptian blogger, was out and about in Cairo, with a live webcam mounted in a car. The independent newspaper, al-Masry al-Youm, was also streaming live video from the streets. Twitter (hashtag #jan25) went into overdrive. Citizen journalists were everywhere – someone counted seven of them recording the scene on their mobile phones at just one location during a single 21-second film clip.

Late this afternoon there were signs that some kind of internet crackdown had begun, with reports that Twitter had been blocked. At present, though, it's not entirely clear what is going in that area.

The protests themselves started off peacefully, though the tear gas, plastic bullets (and possibly live bullets too) came later. The security forces were out in strength and thought they had planned well. But in Cairo they were wrong-footed by the protesters who had announced their own plans but then changed them at the last minute. By staging multiple demonstrations in different places they also seem to have kept the security forces on the hop.

In fact, for much of the day the security forces don't seem to have behaved with quite the gusto that Mubarak might have expected of them. There were reports of demonstrators being allowed through police lines in some cases, and of demonstrators fraternising with the police. One woman was photographed giving them roses.
At present, no one can say with any certainty where all this will lead. But I suspect today's events will leave the protesters feeling emboldened rather than intimidated. 

Man against a water cannon

This week in the Middle East

Article for Comment Is Free, January 26, 2011

The past few days have seen anti-government protesters on the streets of Egypt, Jordan and Yemen – inspired in each case by the uprising that toppled President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. In Algiers, riot police also suppressed a planned march calling for the president's resignation which had been organised by the Rally for Culture and Democracy, a secular party with strong Berber connections.

There have been disturbances, too, in Lebanon but they are a continuation of old sectarian/political rivalries rather than anything strikingly new. The emerging popular struggles to oust entrenched autocrats are the ones to be watched most closely.

Egypt: the big one

The huge demonstrations in Egypt yesterday didn't come entirely out of the blue. Strikes and street protests have long been a feature of Egyptian life and the political debate there is far more open than it was in Tunisia. The shock yesterday was in the scale of the protests – far beyond what the authorities and even the organisers expected, and all that without much support from the traditional opposition parties (including the Muslim Brotherhood which had declined to give its formal backing).

As in Tunisia, the protests were largely secular and instigated by the Facebook generation – the 6 April Youth Movement and Kifaya ("Enough") – along with trade unionists.

There were many allusions to Tunisia in yesterday's protests. Add to that the economic situation in Egypt, the blatantly rigged (and widely mocked) parliamentary election last month, an 82-year-old president who has spent 30 years in power and seems intent on handing over to his son, years of repression by the regime, frustrated youth and a general sense this can't go on much longer – and you have all the ingredients for rebellion.

Where does it go from here? Unless President Hosni Mubarak dies of fright or agrees to step down in the meantime, the struggle that began so spectacularly yesterday is likely to continue until the presidential election in October (or, depending on the outcome, possibly beyond it).

The Mubarak regime appears more solidly based than Ben Ali's in Tunisia and its security apparatus has plenty of experience in controlling discontent. Nevertheless, they seem to have been outmanoeuvred in places yesterday and there were some reported instances of demonstrators fraternising with the police.

For the moment, the opposition parties seem content to let Mubarak serve out his term so long as he doesn't stand again or install his son, Gamal. The Wafd – Egypt's most-established legal party – last night called for a national unity government and fresh parliamentary elections under proportional representation.

No doubt the struggle will have its ups and downs, but I do sense that the question now is when change will come to Egypt, not if it will happen. I wouldn't place any bets on Mubarak senior staying in power beyond October and the prospects for Mubarak junior are surely receding by the day. As in Tunisia, though, dismantling Mubarak's political machine, along with his web of patronage and corruption, will be a tougher nut to crack.

Jordan: bread and freedom

For the second Friday in succession there were protests in Jordan, though on a fairly small scale. "Bread and freedom" was one of the slogans, along with calls for the government to resign. Economic grievances were the spur, and the Islamic Action Front (the local arm of the Muslim Brotherhood) seems to have played a prominent role.

Complaining about the king is still taboo in Jordan, so the protests focused on his ministers, even though it is the king who actually pulls the strings. Jordan still has a long way to go before there can be anything that might be considered as regime change and the difficulties of achieving it are compounded by the population split between Palestinian elements and the tribal Bedouin elements.

Yemen: a question of succession

Turmoil and armed rebellions are so much a part of everyday life in Yemen that a few thousand students and opposition activists demonstrating at Sana'a University might not seem especially significant. But they were calling, very directly, for President Ali Abdullah Salih to go – and alluding, once again, to events in Tunisia.

The presidential issue in Yemen is the same as in Egypt, though slightly less immediate. Salih has been in power in Sana'a for 32 years and the constitution says he must leave office in 2013. Salih shows no intention of stepping down (he's trying to change the constitution so that he can stay) and, like Mubarak, appears to be grooming his son, Ahmed, to succeed him.

Yemenis have a strong republican tradition (having thrown out their king in the 1960s with Egyptian help) and they don't like the idea of a hereditary presidency at all. The country remains hopelessly divided by politics and tribalism but this is one issue around which people may possibly, over the next couple of years, be able to unite.

Egypt: exaggeration or denial?

Al-Ahram's front page. Acknowledgement: The Angry Arab
Blog post, January 27, 2011

In the absence of any noteworthy events in Egypt, the semi-official al-Ahram newspaper had to look further afield for its main front-page headline yesterday: "Widespread protests and disturbances in Lebanon". This is a classic example of the old-style Arab media sticking its head in the sand. 

For real information about what is happening in Egypt, hour by hour, I recommend the Enduring America blog. It includes lots of links to sources, plus photos and videos. Here is yesterday's compilation and here is the start of today's.

So far, mainstream reporting has focused heavily on events in a fairly small area of central Cairo – rightly, to some extent – but there is clearly a lot going on elsewhere. The situation in Suez seems to have turned especially nasty yesterday though details are rather scarce. The video below shows a police station in the city being burned.

On the whole, yesterday's events were less dramatic than on Tuesday, though there were reports of hundreds being arrested and, in many cases, beaten up too. These included a number of foreign journalists (a thoroughly stupid move on the regime's part). Guardian correspondent Jack Shenker recorded an amazing audio report from the back of a police van after his arrest.

Judging from comments on Twitter, the protesters' intention today is to keep the security forces busy, denying them rest before Friday, which is expected to be another big day of street demonstrations.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the reform campaigner, Nobel peace prize winner and holder of the Nile Sash (Egypt's highest honour), is expected to return to Egypt today, and it will be interesting to see what happens when he arrives. In an article for the Daily Beast, Elbaradei says:

The young people of Egypt have lost patience, and what you’ve seen in the streets these last few days has all been organised by them. I have been out of Egypt because that is the only way I can be heard. I have been totally cut off from the local media when I am there. But I am going back to Cairo, and back on to the streets because, really, there is no choice.

Writing on the Arabist blog, Issandr El Amrani notes that president Mubarak has not uttered a word in public about the protests, leaving it to his foreign ministry spokesman to explain that they are being exaggerated by the media (we heard that before in Tunisia) and they prove that Egypt is democratic. I can't say Mubarak's silence surprises me. It took Ben Ali a full 10 days in Tunisia to get round to making a TV broadcast (the one that was interrupted by his phone ringing).

Access to the social media was blocked in Egypt for most of yesterday, though it was later unblocked – apparently as a result of pressure from the United States. The decision to block was a drastic move and probably shows how worried the regime is about Facebook, Twitter, etc. In a way, though, the decision to unblock is more interesting. I can't imagine the regime conceding to a polite American request very readily, and I'd love to know what was said in private. Did the State Department issue some kind of threat and, if so, what was it?

In a press conference yesterday, Hillary Clinton also urged the Egyptian authorities "not to prevent peaceful protests" and said:

"We believe strongly that the Egyptian government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people."

Some will be disappointed that her remarks were not stronger but, for the time being, I think she has got it about right (despite her earlier remarks about Egypt being "stable"). Bush-style stridency from Washington could easily backfire and be used by the regime to discredit the protesters.

Clinton simply spelled out what vast numbers of Egyptians want. I don't suppose for a moment that she thinks Mubarak, as he comes to the end of his 30-year reign, can actually deliver it, but the message was probably addressed – at least in part – to the nervously watching autocrats in other Arab countries and might be translated as: "We've told you what you need to do; if you choose to ignore it that's your problem, not ours."

Protests in Suez yesterday

UPDATE, 27 Jan (evening): The Arabist blog contrasts yesterday's headlines in the Egyptian press with today's headlines and concludes: "The policy for the state press has changed from ignoring the situation to scaremongering about chaos."

Information lockdown in Egypt

Blog post, January 28, 2011

Egypt went into information lockdown last night as the regime cut off internet access along with SMS and BlackBerry messaging ahead of today's demonstrations, with the apparent aim of hampering communications among the protesters. There are also reports of mobile phone systems being turned off selectively in some places.

One access route to the internet – Noor – is said to be still working because it is used by banks and the Stock Exchange. This chart shows the sudden decline in internet traffic yesterday.

The renesys blog gives some technical details of the internet shutdown and describes it as "an action unprecedented in Internet history" (there's also a more recent technical report from bgpmon here.) The Enduring America blog comments that "not even the Iranian regime, at the height of the challenge on the streets to its legitimacy, took such a step. It slowed down the Net to hinder communications and to try to monitor activists, but it never carried out a shutdown".

Rather than offering change (as advised by the United States), the Egyptian regime has clearly decided to try to tough it out. The extremity of the measures it is taking on the ground shows it is seriously worried and probably recognises that it is now engaged in a battle for survival. Even so, the regime is taking a huge gamble: the harder it cracks down, the more public anger it is likely to generate (as we saw in Tunisia). 

It's still hard to grasp the enormity of what is happening in Egypt. On Tuesday morning, I wrote about plans for the Police Day protests and included a note of caution. Although more than 80,000 Facebook users had declared their support, opposition parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, were less eager to give official backing. In any case, Egyptians had been protesting for years but their protests never really got anywhere. 

On Tuesday, though, something clicked and they poured out on to the streets in unprecedented numbers: it seemed that a tipping-point had been reached.

Today's demonstrations, unless the authorities have some new surprise up their sleeves, are likely to be even bigger. Some are talking of a million or more protesters.

The plan, as I understand it, is that after midday prayers people will go out in groups of 10 or more to the nearest square and, hopefully, join up with others. In theory, that should provide the security forces with the worst nightmare they have ever had.

The Atlantic has published details of a pamphlet circulating in Egypt which gives guidance for protesters. It advises:

1. Crowd together with friends and neighbours in residential streets far from the presence of security forces.

2. Cheer in the name of Egypt and the freedom of its people (cheer positively).

3. Organise residents of the buildings to join (in a positive manner).

4. Exit in groups into primary streets to gather as large a crowd as possible.

5. Sneak into important government buildings (with positive cheers) to occupy them.

Unconfirmed reports on Twitter claim that undercover police have been pouring petrol on the ground in Cairo squares, with the apparent intention of setting it alight if protesters try to enter.

There is a general expectation that today will be decisive, one way or the other. If the protesters win the day, it will set the course for a new Middle East: Egypt is not Tunisia – it is the most populous Arab country and a real heavyweight. The outcome will have even greater influence than it did in Tunisia.

My hunch, though, is that today will signal the start – in earnest – of the Egyptian revolution rather than its culmination. In Tunisia it took a month; Egypt is a much bigger fish and this has only been going for three days. The regime won't give up easily and will try to  fight on, even if mortally wounded.

But evaluating all the signs as honestly as I can, think Mohamed ElBaradei was right when he said yesterday that the situation has passed a point of no return. For all practical purposes, the Mubarak – father and son – era is finished and the only question left is whether or not its death throes will drag on until the presidential election scheduled for October.

Even so, I keep wondering if I might be wrong. I have read the article on Ynet assuring Israelis that it's going to be fine: that the friendly dictator will remain in place, that "nothing will be changing" in Egypt and that "when the situation calms down and the streets empty, those who provoked the 'day of fury' will be taken care of".

It's a point of view, and it's what always happened in the past. But I really can't see the situation calming down now until Mubarak goes. The atmosphere is electric – in a way I have never seen before. As Ahmed Moor writes in an article for al-Jazeera, "the Arabs are alive".

Where does the United States stand in all this? We know that it has helped to sustain the Mubarak regime over many years, and a lot of people believe it will continue to do so. 

Yesterday, a White House spokesman said: "This is not about taking sides. What is important is President Mubarak and those that seek greater freedom of expression, greater freedom to assemble, should be able to work out a process for that happening in a peaceful way."

That is considerably less supportive than Mubarak, as a long-standing ally, would have expected. In fact, it suggests the US could be preparing to abandon him. Interestingly, Hillary Clinton 
also spoke of "not taking sides" in connection with Tunisia on January 11. Three days later, President Ben Ali fled.

Mubarak: the exit strategy

Blog post, January 29, 2011

With his plans to attend the Cairo Book Fair today regrettably disrupted, President Mubarak will instead spend the day choosing a new cabinet to replace the one he dismissed on television last night. 

But his sudden offer of "dialogue" after 30 years in power is not going to cut any ice with the protesters on the streets whom he laughably accused in his TV broadcast of being "part of a bigger plot to shake the stability and destroy the legitimacy" of Egypt's political system. Nor will his promise that "We will not backtrack on reforms". The people want him to go and will not be satisfied until he does, but he is not listening yet.

Meanwhile, what is the United States up to? Despite Hillary Clinton's claim last year that "I really consider President and Mrs Mubarak to be friends of my family," and despite her call yesterday for Mubarak to "engage immediately" with the Egyptian people, there is no sign that the US is actually trying to keep the tyrant in power.

Yesterday's threat to cut American aid – "reviewing our assistance posture" as the White House spokesman put it – may even have been intended to help Mubarak on his way. Since the aid is mostly military, that will certainly give the Egyptian army cause to consider their position.

It seems to me, based on statements so far, that the US is focusing more on the post-Mubarak situation than on trying to save him. It is trying to engineer (and manipulate) a smooth transfer of power.

Unlike Tunisia, Egypt is of considerable strategic importance to the United States. While officially promoting freedom and democracy, the US wants an Egyptian government that can be relied upon to maintain the peace treaty with Israel, to keep the Suez canal open and cooperate internationally against terrorism. It is also probably seeking to allay fears in Israel which, despite being next door to Egypt, patently failed to see the trouble coming.

The subtext here, of course, is keeping the Muslim Brotherhood away from power, since as far as many Americans and Israelis are concerned, they are no different from al-Qaeda.

Personally, I think there's less to worry about on that score than many people imagine. As with the election of Hamas in Gaza, a lot of the Brotherhood's electoral support in Egypt can be considered as a protest vote against Mubarak and, once he is gone and the secular parties can operate more freely, that will start to wither.

The question now is how Mubarak – naturally stubborn and, at 82, extremely set in his ways – can be persuaded to leave. Once the Egyptian public have signalled their rejection of the new government (as they surely will), someone is going to have to tell him ... and my hunch is that it will be the military.

If so, that will bring the army to the fore, for the sake of "restoring order" if not actually running the country. Constitutionally speaking, (Article 84), the latter task should fall to the chair of the People's Assembly, with new presidential elections to be held within 60 days.

Mubarak clings on as his power ebbs

Blog post, January 30, 2011

Just a brief post to take stock of the situation in Egypt this morning.

President Mubarak is still clinging to what remains of his power. Yesterday, he appointed Omar Suleiman as his vice-president (a post that he had kept vacant for the last 30 years). At the very least, this suggests Mubarak now recognises that his reign is coming to an end.

Mubarak also named Ahmad Shafiq, a former commander of the Egyptian air force, as his new prime minister. The full new cabinet is expected to be announced today.

There are persistent reports that Mubarak's sons, Alaa and Gamal, have fled to London but I haven't seen any definite confirmation of this. Similarly, there's a story that 19 private planes carrying prominent Egyptian businessmen left for Dubai overnight.

On the streets, something strange happened yesterday: the police melted away and looters moved in. There were repeated allegations that the looters were in fact plainclothes police and other members of the security apparatus whose aim was to cause mayhem and provide the excuse for a harsh crackdown. However, Egyptians responded by setting up their own neighbourhood protection committees – a move that seems to have been relatively effective. (There were similar stories of government-instigated looting during the latter stages of the Tunisian uprising.)

This morning there were reports of a stronger army presence on the streets of Cairo, especially around Tahrir Square, but it seems this may be limited to certain areas only and there are questions about whether the army is really capable of carrying out policing operations across the country.

Rumours have been circulating that the army will take a much tougher line with protesters today – what some are calling the Tiananmen Square option. However, I am sceptical about that. For one, thing, the US has warned strongly against it, and though Mubarak may not listen to Washington I think his commanders are more likely to. A couple of reports on Twitter say women are likely to be at the fore of today's protests "to give the men a rest". If so, that may also deter the military. Others point out that Suleiman and Shafik are old-style authoritarians who may stop at nothing in their efforts to salvage the situation.

For continuing TV coverage of the events, Al-Jazeera English, which can be watched online, is still the best option. For a text version, I recommend the Enduring America blog, which is run by 
Scott Lucas, Professor of American Studies at Birmingham University.

[QUICK UPDATE: The regime is now reported to have revoked al-Jazeera's licence and ordered its bureau to be closed. That won't stop it reporting but coverage of events on the streets will be more difficult.]

Finally, it is rare to find a truly perceptive article about the Middle East in the New York Times, but this one, by Anthony Shadid, hits the button. He writes:

For the first time in a generation, it is not religion, nor the adventures of a single leader, nor wars with Israel that have energised the region. Across Egypt and the Middle East, a somewhat nostalgic notion of a common Arab identity, intersecting with a visceral sense of what amounts to a decent life, is driving protests that have bound the region in a sense of a shared destiny.

He continues:

Rarely has there been a moment when the Middle East felt so interconnected, governments so unpopular and Arabs so overwhelmingly agreed on the demand for change, even as some worry about the aftermath in a place where alternatives to dictatorship have been relentlessly crushed ... The Middle East is being drawn together by economic woes and a shared resentment that people have been denied dignity and respect.

The issue here is the resurrection of a spirit of pan-Arabism after several decades when a sense of Islamic identity seemed to be supplanting Arab identity. That trend now appears to have been reversed.

Shadid mentions one example from Egypt where protesters replaced the old Brotherhood slogan, "Islam is the solution", with a new one: "Tunisia is the solution".

This shifting balance between Arab and Islamic identities is a central feature of what is happening in the Middle East today, and it's likely to generate some heated debate in the weeks and months to come.

Egypt: a day of deadlock

Blog post, January 30, 2011

The Mubarak regime still doesn't get it. Nothing illustrates its attitude more clearly than the decision yesterday to send F-16 warplanes roaring low over the thousands gathered in Tahrir Square, in the expectation that they would scurry away like frightened sheep.

Instead, the protesters stood their ground and chanted more loudly. Some of them arranged their bodies to spell out the words "Down with Mubarak" – big enough to be read from the air.

Meanwhile the regime's attempt to stop al-Jazeera's minute-by-minute TV coverage failed miserably and the "night-time" curfew (starting at 4pm and due to start at 3pm today) was widely ignored.

Today, in an effort to restore a semblance of normality, the police will be back on the streets – reportedly with instructions not to confront the protesters. They had been withdrawn over the weekend, apparently to facilitate looting by the regime's thugs and thus provide the excuse for a crackdown or get people pleading with Mubarak to save them. That move was thwarted by the public, who organised their own unofficial policing.

One of the most striking things about the uprising so far has been the resourcefulness of the protesters and their determination. At the same time though, on the other side, we have President Mubarak – equally implacable and determined to stay put.

The result, for now, is deadlock. But the deadlock cannot be broken by the army or the police shooting and teargassing people on the streets. At some point there will have to be movement on the political front – and that is not going to happen instantly. (It's worth repeating that the removal of Ben Ali in Tunisia took four weeks; the Mubarak regime is a tougher nut to crack and the uprising began less than a week ago.)

There seems to be widespread recognition, even by some of the regime stalwarts, that Egypt is moving towards "transition". The argument, basically, is whether it will be a transition supervised by Mubarak or not. The protesters' fear is that a transition under Mubarak will merely bring a change of faces without real change in the system they are protesting about. As far as the protesters are concerned, that is a deal-breaker.

Mohamed ElBaradei offered the regime a carrot yesterday by putting himself forward as "leader" of the opposition. Like him or not, this means a channel is now open for dialogue if and when the regime is ready to talk – though on the protesters' side that can't happen until Mubarak goes.

The US will also have to shift its stance. Obama, of course, is in a tricky position. He talks about the "aspirations of the Egyptian people" while at the same time having to contend with worried allies – especially Israel and the Arab autocrats – and American "opinion-formers" who expect Egypt to turn into an Islamic republic the moment Mubarak goes.

Over the weekend, Obama consulted the leaders of Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Britain about their aspirations for Egypt – which at present seem to be a higher American priority than the aspirations of the protesters themselves.

The time has come for the US and other countries to stop making supportive noises about the old tyrant (despite anything Israel may say to the contrary) and to stop buying into Mubarak's favourite line of defence: aprθs moi, le dιluge.

Yesterday, an open letter to Obama – signed by a large number of American academics involved with foreign policy and the Middle East – urged him to take a more robust stand:

If you seek, as you said Friday, "political, social, and economic reforms that meet the aspirations of the Egyptian people", your administration should publicly acknowledge those reforms will not be advanced by Mubarak or any of his adjutants ... 

In order for the United States to stand with the Egyptian people it must approach Egypt through a framework of shared values and hopes, not the prism of geostrategy.

Leading the way to oblivion

A doctored photograph from the semi-official al-Ahram newspaper, showing Mubarak leading the way during his visit to the White House last September

Blog post, February 1, 2011

With Egyptian protesters beginning a "million-person march" today – probably heading for the presidential palace – Mubarak's latest ploy is to shut down the country's entire rail network in the hope of keeping people away. But as with the night-time curfew, the banning of al-Jazeera and the internet shutdown, it's unlikely to have much effect on the protesters' determination.

With the last local internet connection now severed, Google has announced a new service allowing Egyptians to tweet via voicemail. "We hope that this will go some way to helping people in Egypt stay connected at this very difficult time," it said.

Demonstrators had already begun gathering in Cairo's Tahrir Square yesterday evening to spend the night there amid what was described as a carnival atmosphere. The army has said it will stand by today but not intervene. However, there are fears that the regime may organise a counter-demonstration – which could result in trouble.

Yesterday, President Mubarak swore-in his new cabinet which includes plenty of old faces, though it does exclude several business chums of his son, Gamal. Farouk Hosni, the veteran culture minister, is also out. Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper has 
more details.

This certainly does not look like the kind of cabinet to implement the rapid reforms that the US has been calling for. Nevertheless, President Obama has despatched a special envoy to facilitate political change. He is 73-year-old Frank Wisner who served as ambassador to Cairo more than 20 years ago.

Meanwhile, former British prime minister Tony Blair said change in Egypt is "inevitable" but must be managed, adding that it must not be allowed to harm the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (which in any case is more or less dead). Former US president Jimmy Carter was more forthright, saying that "the people have decided" and Mubarak "will have to leave".

Egypt's new vice-president, Omar Suleiman, appeared on television last night to say Mubarak has ordered him to start talks with the opposition – though nobody seems to have taken any notice of that, or of his promised to issue a government policy statement "within days".

We are now one week into the Egyptian uprising and the only real solution is for Mubarak to go. Instead, he seems intent on taking the country into oblivion with him. But, as almost everyone recognises, this is not just about Egypt; it's about the whole Middle East. Mubarak's fate will also, so some extent, determine that of the other ageing autocrats.

Mubarak is so stubborn that it's hard to be sure what's needed to finally tip him over the edge. Will it be a group of generals confronting him and telling him the game is up? Will he suddenly decide that he needs urgent medical treatment abroad? Will an impending economic collapse force him out? Whatever it is that does the trick, I doubt that we shall have long to wait.

Egypt protests give Arab media a headache

Article for Comment Is Free, February 2, 2011

Faced with an event of Berlin Wall magnitude on its home turf, the Arab media is torn over the uprising in Egypt and how to report it, if at all.

In the old days, the media's role was not so much to report the news as to "guide" the public, shielding them from "harmful" information or anything that might inflame their passions.

That ceased to be a viable option more than 20 years ago with the arrival of satellite television, especially al-Jazeera, and since then the internet has made it less viable still. And yet, large sections of the Arab media still persist in their hidebound ways.

At the weekend, while al-Jazeera was providing minute-by-minute coverage of events in Tahrir Square (and generally doing it better than western news organisations), Egyptian state television was focusing its cameras on quieter parts of Cairo, including a tranquil bridge over the Nile.

In Oman, ruled despotically by Sultan Qaboos for the last 40 years, it is much the same. The Oman Observer seems only interested in reporting government news from Egypt.

On Sunday, its headline was "Mubarak picks vice-president" and on Tuesday it was "Egypt unveils new cabinet". This morning, after yesterday's dramatic events in Cairo, it ignores Egypt completely.

In the same country, meanwhile, the Times of Oman has been playing a slightly straighter bat: "Egyptians seek million-strong march to oust Mubarak". It even quoted a protester saying: "The only thing we will accept from him [Mubarak] is that he gets on a plane and leaves."

In the Palestinian territories, "Wafa News Agency had not a word about Egypt, as if nothing were happening", according to the independent Maan News. "Palestine TV broadcast comedies as other stations aired footage of thousands in Cairo streets."

Obviously this makes them look silly and undermines their credibility with the public, who know what is going on from other sources. But they carry on in the old ways regardless, much like the Arab dictators themselves.

As for the Palestinian newspapers, Maan News says:

"Jerusalem-based newspaper al-Hayah al-Jadidah's coverage of Egypt seemed to say 'We swear to God we have nothing to do with what is going on in Egypt' while al-Ayyam ran the front page with a large photo of Egyptian protests and a brief story saying 'Egypt witnesses a state of chaos'."

"Chaos" has also been a major theme in Egypt's government newspapers. After initially attempting denial – on the day after the first big protest al-Ahram came up with the now-notorious front-page headline: "Heated protests and calls for strikes in Lebanon" – they switched to scaremongering about chaos (even though the chaos was mainly caused by the regime's response to the demonstrations and its efforts to shut down almost everything in sight).

The Palestinians, however, have their own reasons for giving news from Egypt the kid-glove treatment. Maan News says:

"Silence prevailed, from the Palestinian Authority, the government in Gaza, the factions and the people; all kept a safe distance from the Egyptian hot potato for fear that coming out on the wrong side would impact their future …

"The shadow of former President Yasser Arafat's strong support of Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait still hangs long over Palestinian foreign policy. For Arafat's support in the 1990s, Palestinians were expelled from the Gulf states, had properties seized and accounts frozen."

But Maan adds: "While official silence has become the norm, Palestinians are watching events closely. In every home, in every coffee house and in every shop, those stations covering the events in Egypt play ceaselessly."

Surprisingly, perhaps, sections of the Saudi media have been relatively open in their reporting of Egypt. They rely a lot on western news agencies – partly because of a lack of resources but also, probably, so that their own journalists can't be blamed if something in the reports upsets the authorities.

Saudi columnists have been discussing the situation in Egypt – and not without a measure of sympathy for the protesters. Tariq Alhomayed, writing in Asharq Alawsat, concedes: "The Egyptian protesters' demands were legitimate at the start." Even so, given that Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy, journalists have to be careful not to imply criticism of the Saudi system and keep clear of direct references to dictatorship and the lack of democracy. Instead, Alhomayed argues that the problem in Egypt is all about lost "prestige" of the state.

* * *

Arab leaders are also grappling with dilemmas similar to those in the Arab media. The Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, seems not unhappy at the downfall of Ben Ali and Mubarak (both of them, after all, friends of the United States). He hailed this as the start of a "new era" in the Middle East, while insisting that the same thing could not happen to his own regime in Syria.

Muammar Gaddafi, erstwhile supporter of revolutionary movements all over the world, bemoaned the overthrow of Ben Ali and portrayed him as a victim of the internet. Since then, Gaddafi has had a foretaste of insurrection in Libya and seems to be keeping his mouth shut about Egypt.

In the same way that large tranches of the Arab media have failed to catch up with conditions that changed years ago, Arab regimes are failing to grasp that the old ways don't work any more. The situation they face today is unlike any they have faced before. But while discouraging their own citizens from thinking outside the box, they also seem incapable of doing it themselves.

Whether it's Mubarak promising to stand down at the end of his term, the king of Jordan changing his ministers, or the president of Yemen handing out economic titbits, they really have nothing new to offer. All those steps were announced by the late Ben Ali during his last days in office. And they all failed to halt the tide. Welcome to Jurassic Park.

Mubarak's reform plan: procrastinate and prevaricate 

Blog post, February 2, 2011

It hasn't taken long for Egypt's "official" opposition parties – the Wafd, the Tagammu and the Nasserists – to cave in and 
agree to talks with the Mubarak regime. Fortunately, they are not enough on their own to make any dialogue meaningful.

Events of the last 24 hours – Mubarak's TV speech followed by government-sponsored thugs going on the rampage – have shown the regime has no intention of pursuing genuine and rapid change. It will simply procrastinate and prevaricate, and the more outsiders press it to do otherwise the more it will resist "foreign interference".

As my Guardian colleague Simon Tisdall wrote earlier today:

Mubarak's speech to the nation on Tuesday night was widely misinterpreted. The president was, by turns, angry, defiant and unrepentant. He offered no apologies, proposed no new initiatives, gave no promise that his son Gamal would not succeed him, and instead lectured Egyptians on the importance of order and stability (which he alone could assure).

He appeared not to have learned anything from the past week. And his one "concession" – that he would not seek re-election – was no concession at all. After all, he had never said he would.

There is no real prospect of change while the regime remains intact. If it is serious about transition (which I doubt) it should, at the very least, give a serious signal of its intent. That means Mubarak stepping aside – now – and inviting figures from other parties (and none) into a national unity government.

Another point to bear in mind is that the longer this drags on, the better it will be for the Muslim Brotherhood. A lot of the Brotherhood's electoral support is a protest vote against Mubarak and his way of governing. Once he is gone, the protest-vote element will start to wane.

There has also been some media excitement today at President Salih's announcement in Yemen that he will retire in 2013. Like Mubarak, he is not to be trusted. In fact, he has talked of stepping down several times before and on each occasion he has changed his mind later. Here is a report I wrote about it on the last occasion, in 2005.

Mubarak's day of departure?

Blog post, Febuary 4, 2011

Egyptian protesters have dubbed today the "Day of Departure" for President Mubarak – and they may be proved right. There are reports this morning that the US has now shifted from vague talk of "transition" to working on a plan for him to step down immediately.

The American plan is said to involve Omar Suleiman, the newly-appointed vice-president, taking charge over a transitional government. 

Whether or not this would be acceptable to the protesters, it presents a constitutional problem. The constitution (Article 84) says that in the event of the president resigning, the chair of the People's Assembly (rather than the vice-president) would assume presidential duties, with new presidential elections to be held within 60 days.

However, there are a couple of ways the American scenario could still be implemented legally and leave Suleiman in charge. One would be for Mubarak to leave the country "temporarily" without formally resigning (which is what Ben Ali attempted initially in Tunisia). The other – extremely unlikely – would be a parliamentary vote to impeach him. Nathan Brown explores the question further on the Foreign Policy website.

Mubarak's behaviour over the last couple of days has effectively sealed his fate: first by setting his thugs on demonstrators and journalists, and then by his interview with Christiane Amanpour where he said the only thing holding him back from resigning was the chaos that he believed would ensue. This invited the obvious riposte that the country is already in chaos as a result of his refusal to go.

There has been some irritation expressed on Twitter about the amount of prominence given to attacks on foreign journalists compared with those on ordinary Egyptians. It's a fair point, but the reporting of attacks on journalists – especially American ones – has clearly helped to shift the discourse among western governments towards calling for Mubarak's immediate departure rather than waiting until the next presidential election.

American efforts to manipulate Egypt's transfer of power behind the scenes are not something I particularly welcome, either. But, again, considering that the US has helped to prop up Mubarak's regime over so many years it seems necessary, in a way, that the US should also signal now that it is finally letting him go. And for once, on the immediate issue of Mubarak's departure (if nothing else), the new American position does seem to be in line with the wishes of the Egyptian people.

Situation: fluid and scary

Blog post, February 6, 2011

The situation in Egypt, as a friend from Alexandria described it to me in an email this morning, is "quite fluid and extremely scary". It's also very difficult to work out what is really going on behind the scenes.

Vice-President Suleiman increasingly behaves as if he were president, while the president himself, fading from view but not resigning, continues to haunt the scene as a ghost behind the curtains.

In some areas the Mubarak regime appears (repeat: appears) to be retreating step by step – as seen from the resignations yesterday of the president's son, Gamal, and other senior figures in the ruling party.

While the street protests are being tolerated, probably in the hope that the demonstrators will eventually wear themselves out, the old repressive tactics – arrests and so on – continue in the background. In the words of my friend's email, "The witch hunt has already started."

None of this suggests the emerging "transitional" leaders are committed to rapid and meaningful change, that they will do anything other than drag their feet all the way to the scheduled presidential election in September, or that they will not attempt to retrench if given half a chance.

Then there is the United States, which still seems to be dithering over whether Mubarak should stay or go and, if so, how soon he should go. The danger is that the Obama administration will get too deeply involved and end up hindering rather than helping. In the words of an Egyptian woman quoted by the Guardian yesterday:

"If Obama gets rid of Mubarak, you will see that many people in Egypt will love America. If Obama leaves it to the Egyptian people, we will love him. But if Obama tries to force us to have a government we don't want, it will be different. We will win and then we will judge Obama by what he does and take decisions according to how he behaves."

Meanwhile, there are various legal/constitutional obstacles blocking the way forward politically. This is not surprising because the legal framework was constructed to keep the regime in power and prevent it from being easily dismantled.

Hossam Bahgat and Soha Abdelaty of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights explain the problems in detail in an article for the Washington Post.

The big question is how to ensure that the coming presidential election is conducted freely and fairly, and without the customary repression in the run-up to it. Whatever moves are made between now and September should be directed towards that goal. But at present I can't see it happening without continued pressure from the streets.

The Muslim Brotherhood uncovered

Article for the Guardian, February 8, 2011. Co-written with Jack Shenker

The downstairs entrance is littered with rubbish, and the stairwell is dark and cramped. Only the opulence of the second-floor door – a broad, ornate colossus of a door – offers any clue as to what lies inside this unprepossessing apartment block in an unfashionable corner of Cairo's Roda Island.

Behind the door are the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement that – depending on who you believe – is about to either give Egypt the Taliban treatment or help steer the country through transition to a pluralist democracy.

Given the international opprobrium that its name often inspires, perhaps it's not surprising that the brotherhood prefers a low-key, almost shabby feel for its headquarters. "We are not in the forefront," smiles Essam el-Erian, a senior brotherhood leader. "We keep a step behind."

A step behind is exactly where the brotherhood has been accused of being during the past two weeks of momentous upheaval in Egypt, two weeks in which the world's oldest Islamist organisation found itself out on the sidelines as a new political reality unfolded before its eyes.

When the call first went out for mass pro-change protests on 25 January, the brotherhood responded as it always has to any major anti-government activity originating outside its own sphere of influence – it dithered. With that dithering came a loss of credibility, as the demonstrations gathered momentum and coalesced into nothing short of a revolutionary challenge to 30 years of entrenched dictatorship.

Now, though – having been wrong-footed and overtaken by largely non-religious young activists – the brotherhood is seeking to regain its standing as the country's leading opposition movement, without turning either local or western opinion against it.

Playing catch-up has seen the brotherhood engaging in dialogue with a government that has long kept it outlawed – thus gaining a legal legitimacy denied since 1954 – while at the same time trying to avoid accusations of a sell-out from the hundreds of thousands who continue to pack Tahrir Square and who want to see President Hosni Mubarak gone before any negotiations towards a democratic transition can begin.

"There is no compromise," Erian (above right) told the Guardian on Tuesday. "We reassess our position every day, maybe every hour. We give them some time to discuss … [Those around Mubarak] are arranging their affairs because he was a symbol of the regime and he was controlling them. They need some time. We give them this chance. A week."

The "Brother Muslimhood" – as the vice-president, Omar Suleiman, repeatedly called it this week during a TV interview with Christiane Amanpour – also faces a potentially more difficult tightrope walk internationally.

Its need is to position itself at the forefront of Egypt's post-Mubarak future without sounding alarm bells in western capitals, where Mubarak's warnings about the dire threats posed by the brotherhood have often been taken at face value. It's a dilemma that Erian is only too aware of. "Mr Obama, Mrs Clinton, Mr Cameron, Mr Sarkozy, when they see us at the front they say we are another Khomeini, another Iranian [revolution]," he says.

But placating foreign powers was not what Hassan al-Banna founded the movement for in 1928. It was Britain's presence in Egypt that led to the brotherhood's creation. Six Egyptian workers employed in the military camps of Ismailiyya in the Suez Canal Zone visited Banna, a young teacher who they had heard preaching in mosques and cafes on the need for "Islamic renewal".

"Arabs and Muslims have no status and no dignity," they complained, according to the brotherhood's official history. "They are no more than mere hirelings belonging to the foreigners … We are unable to perceive the road to action as you perceive it …"

Banna later wrote that the Europeans had expropriated the resources of Muslim lands and corrupted them with "murderous germs": "They imported their half-naked women into these regions, together with their liquors, their theatres, their dance halls, their amusements, their stories, their newspapers, their novels, their whims, their silly games, and their vices … The day must come when the castles of this materialistic civilisation will be laid low upon the heads of their inhabitants."

Banna argued that Islam provided a complete solution, with divine guidance on everything from worship and spiritual matters to the law, politics and social organisation. He established an evening school for the working classes which impressed the general inspector of education and by 1931 the brotherhood had constructed its first mosque – for which the Suez Canal Company is said to have provided some of the funds.

Banna was offering a religious alternative to the more secular and western-inspired nationalist ideas that had so far failed to liberate Egypt from the clutches of foreign powers, and the popular appeal of his message was undeniable: by 1938, the movement had 300 branches across the country, as well as others in Lebanon and Syria.

During the second world war, British attitudes towards the brotherhood – and those of the British-backed Egyptian monarchy – ranged from suppression to covert support, since it was viewed as a possible counterweight against the secular nationalist party, the Wafd, and the communists. In 1948, the movement sent volunteers to fight in Palestine against the establishment of Israel and there were numerous bomb attacks on Jews in Cairo – at least some of which are attributed to the brotherhood.

A year later, members assassinated a judge who had jailed a Muslim Brother for attacking British soldiers. The Egyptian government ordered the brotherhood to be dissolved and many of its members were arrested. The prime minister was then assassinated by a Brother and in February 1949 Banna was himself gunned down in the streets of Cairo, apparently on the order of the authorities.

The brotherhood was also implicated in an attempt to assassinate President Gamal Nasser in 1954, but it has long since renounced violence as a political means in Egypt. By the 1980s it was making determined efforts to join the political mainstream, making a series of alliances with the Wafd, the Labour and Liberal parties. In the 2000 election it won 17 parliamentary seats. Five years later, with candidates standing as independents for legal reasons, it won 88 seats – 20% of the total and its best electoral result to date.

"There can be no question that genuine democracy must prevail," Mohammad Mursi, a brotherhood spokesman, wrote in an article for Tuesday's Guardian. "While the Muslim Brotherhood is unequivocal regarding its basis in Islamic thought, it rejects any attempt to enforce any ideological line upon the Egyptian people."

Although the Brotherhood appears to have firmly embraced democracy, the means for reconciling that with its religious principles are not entirely clear: the issue of God's sovereignty versus people's sovereignty looks to have been fudged rather than resolved.

The Brotherhood continues to maintain that "Islam is the solution" while at the same time demonstrating a kind of pragmatism that suggests Islam may not be a complete solution after all.

One example is jizya, the poll tax on non-Muslims, which is clearly prescribed in the Qur'an. The original idea was that non-Muslims, since they did not serve in the military, should pay for their protection by Muslims.

Today, most Muslims regard jizya as obsolete.In order to follow Qur'anic principles strictly, though, it would have to be reinstated. In 1997, the Muslim Brotherhood's Supreme Guide at the time, Mustafa Mashhur, did suggest reintroducing it but, in a country with around 6 million Christians, this caused uproar and the movement later backtracked. 

For non-Islamist Muslims, jizya presents no great problem: they can justify its abolition on the basis of historicity – that the circumstances in which the tax was imposed no longer exist today. For Islamists, though, this is much more difficult because the words of the Qur'an and the practices of the earliest Muslims form the core of their ideology.

The late Nasr Abu Zayd, a liberal theologian who was hounded out of Egypt by Islamists in the 1990s, regarded historicity as the crux of the issue. "If they concede historicity, all the ideology will just fall down," he said, "… the entire ideology of the word of God."

He argued that the brotherhood's semi-illegal status allows it to agitate and sloganise without needing to face the realities of everyday politics or having its policies subjected to much critical scrutiny.

Years of repression at the hands of the Egyptian authorities have made the brotherhood more interested in human rights than many might expect from an Islamist organisation. When the European parliament criticised Egypt's record in 2008, the Mubarak regime responded with fury, while Hussein Ibrahim, the brotherhood's parliamentary spokesman, sided with Europe.

"The issue of human rights has become a global language," he said. "Although each country has its own particulars, respect of human rights is now a concern for all peoples" – though he specifically excluded gay rights.

Rather than deploring criticism from abroad, he said, the Egyptian government would do better to improve its human rights record, which would leave less room for foreigners to cause embarrassment.

Erian, an outspoken reformist on the brotherhood's guidance council, is at pains to sketch out the limits of his organisation's political ambitions. He insists that it has no plans to run a candidate for the presidency, though any broad-backed opposition "unity" candidate will obviously need the brotherhood's approval.

But he goes further and says the brotherhood will not even seek a majority in parliament – a far cry from the predictions of many Washington-based analysts that it is waiting in the wings to seize control of the most populous Arab country.

"If we can build a wide coalition instead, this would be good," Erian says. "This is our strategy for many reasons: not to frighten others, inside or outside, and also because this is a country destroyed, destroyed by Mubarak and his family – why would the rebuilding task be only for us? It's not our task alone, it's the job of all Egyptians." He adds: "The Muslim Brothers are a special case because we are not seeking power through violent or military means like other Islamic organisations that might be violent. We are a peaceful organisation; we work according to the constitution and the law."

Khalil Al Anani, an expert on Egypt's political Islamists at Durham University, points out that during the protests the Brotherhood has made no specific political demands relating to its own goals.

"At the high level, they have made a smart tactical move in mandating ElBaradei to be a spokesman for Egyptian opposition forces, because it's a signal to the west. The Brotherhood don't want the west to diminish this revolution, and hence they don't want to give the west any excuse to support Mubarak. By putting ElBaradei up they avoid giving them that excuse."

Although outsiders often use words like "smart" and "savvy" when describing the brotherhood, some regard its missteps during the initial 25 January protests as an example of its incompetence. "In 83 years it has botched every opportunity," anthropologist Scott Atran wrote last week. "Its failure to support the initial uprising in Cairo on January 25 has made it marginal to the spirit of revolt now spreading through the Arab world."

But if the brotherhood is not seeking political power, what is its purpose? Josh Stacher, an expert on the movement, says it should be viewed in the context of its earlier anti-colonial struggle: "It's very much about providing Egyptian answers to Egyptian problems. Also, it's organised on a grassroots level. It offers people opportunities in a way that the Egyptian state doesn't. It's almost a mini parallel state without a military."

Among its members there is a division between those who want the group to concentrate on dawa, or social evangelism, and those who see political power as the ultimate goal. The former include people such as the current conservative supreme guide, Mohamed Badie, who see formal politics as only one part of an overall toolkit in the challenge to make Egyptian society more thoroughly Islamic.

It's a distinction that has long kept the brotherhood fragmented, leaving it more as an umbrella group for Islamist political forces of many different shades than as the monolithic vanquisher of liberal secular values so often portrayed in the international media. Erian acknowledges the existence of internal dissent, but claims the holistic nature of the Muslim Brotherhood, and indeed of Islam as a religion, means that these different outlooks can be a source of strength rather than a weakness.

"Islam is one unit – jobs or tasks can be divided," he says. "It's like the state – one unit, but with 40 or so ministers all doing their jobs. It's the same with us. We are ready to play a political role, but under the umbrella of a wider structure."

He goes on to compare the Brotherhood's workings to those of the individual. "I am an imam in the mosque near my home. I am a politician. I am a representative to the media. I am a physician – I go to the lab every night to look through microscopes. You cannot divide me. If time pressures push me towards one aspect, the others still can't be neglected."

As Egypt has changed over the past fortnight, with young people propelling themselves dramatically into the heart of the country's political future, so too has the brotherhood, where an ageing leadership clique has been challenged by a fresher generation of members, keen to take a more confrontational stance with the Mubarak regime and quicker to forge alliances with forces the brotherhood have traditionally not been warm towards, such as Coptic Christian and women's groups.

"The reformist wing within the brotherhood will be strengthened, at the expense of the conservative old guard," said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Egypt's political Islamists at Durham University.

"The Mubarak regime was very skilful at exaggerating the influence of the Brotherhood and painting them as a threat to Egyptian society and to the west," he added. "It was the pretext for Mubarak's rule, and it was a lie. I think that if Egypt held free and fair elections tomorrow the Brotherhood would not get a majority; it would enjoy a significant presence in parliament but the overall makeup of seats would be pluralistic. This is the time for the west to rethink its attitudes to the Muslim Brotherhood. If they don't start assessing the weight of the brotherhood accurately, they will make major miscalculations in the coming days."

Mubarak teases Egypt as his regime fragments

Article for Comment Is Free, February 11, 2011

The victory celebrations in Tahrir Square had been going on for hours when the moment arrived for what almost everyone assumed would be Hosni Mubarak's resignation speech, but the Egyptian president was determined to tease them a little longer.

On state TV, the news bulletin came and went, with no sign of the president. Then came the weather forecast. Then a promotional film showing what a wonderful place Egypt is and then, rather surprisingly, a discussion about high-level corruption.

Finally, the man who has presided over high-level corruption for the last 30 years appeared – about 40 minutes late. By that stage, anyone tuned to Alarabiya – the Saudi TV channel set up as a rival to al-Jazeera – already knew what he was going to say. Someone had leaked the speech to them.

And what a speech. By the standards of any modern politician, it was truly dreadful: in turns vain, arrogant, patronising, condescending and defiant. Above all, it showed Mubarak totally out of touch with the mood of the country and the will of the people that he governs. The only thing to be said in its favour is that it illustrated, in just a few hundred words, all the reasons why he ought to go (even if he's still refusing to do so).

He began by addressing the people as his "sons and daughters" – a phrase that might slip past unnoticed, though in fact it encapsulates the fundamental problem with Arab leaders and how they perceive themselves and their citizens. They behave like the traditional head of an Arab household, the paterfamilias – a remote, supposedly wise and almost God-like figure who rarely speaks but, when he does, must always be obeyed because he knows what's best for his children.

By the time he got to "I am determined to live up to my promises" a few sentences further on, it was clear he had no intention of resigning – and he followed this up with a series of "commitments" which, on past form, cannot be taken at face value.

He even appeared to backtrack on Egypt's much criticised and semi-permanent "emergency" law, saying it would be lifted only when "calm and stability" return and conditions are "suitable". Just a few months ago, the regime had been promising that the 43-year "emergency" would end as soon as the draft of its new anti-terrorism law had been finalised.

Before long, though, the speech was drifting off into familiar blather about Mubarak's service to the country and his military achievements:

"I was as young as Egypt's youth today, when I learned the Egyptian military honour, allegiance and sacrifice for my country.
I have spent a lifetime defending its soil and sovereignty. I witnessed its wars, with its defeats and victories …
It was the happiest day of my life when I raised the flag of Egypt over Sinai."

In Tahrir, the cheers turned to jeers and chants of "Mubarak out!" resumed. By the end, people were taking off their shoes and waving them at the TV screens – the ultimate Arab insult.

What are we to make of these extraordinary events, and what do they herald for today? One theory among Egyptians is that the speech was intentionally provocative, calculated to arouse the ire of the protesters, goading them into violence – and thus providing a pretext for martial law. That may be a bit too conspiratorial.

There is also the mysterious business of the ominously titled "Communique Number One" from the supreme council of the armed forces saying that the military has begun taking "necessary measures to protect the nation" and "support the legitimate demands of the people".

What exactly does that mean, and how does it relate to Mubarak's non-resignation speech? Indeed, why did Mubarak need to make a speech at all if he is not resigning?

According to reports, the supreme council has met only three times in its history: in 1967 and 1973 (when the country was at war) – and on Thursday. Thursday's meeting was held without its chairman, Mubarak, and apparently the meeting was adjourned without formally concluding. A second communique has failed to clarify the army's position.

Possibly, as one Egyptian commentator suggested on the BBC, the army was attempting a coup which Mubarak had fended off by threatening to unleash his Republican Guard upon them.

Whatever the truth in that, when the head of the ruling party says it's time for the president to step aside, when the government media seem increasingly uncertain about the message they are supposed to be conveying and three former ministers have been forbidden to leave the country pending possibly corruption charges, the inescapable conclusion is that the struggle on the streets is no longer the only game in town – and that key members of the regime are now fighting amongst themselves.

  • Less than 24 hours after making this speech, President Mubarak stepped down.


The falling dictators

The fall of Saddam Hussein

The fall of Ben Ali

The fall of Mubarak

The fall of Gaddafi

The fall of Saleh


In the Egypt section



What's Really Wrong with the Middle East  
Brian Whitaker, 2009

Books from Amazon

The Yacoubian Building
a novel by Alaa Al Aswany

Purchase from amazon.com or amazon.co.uk

Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?
by Galal Amin

Purchase from www.amazon.com or amazon.co.uk

Whatever Else Happened to the Egyptians?
by Amin Galal

Purchase from amazon.com or amazon.co.uk

The Rough Guide to Egypt
by Dan Richardson

Purchase from amazon.com or amazon.co.uk




View statistics

Last revised on 21 December, 2014